Torchwood: From Out of the Rain & Adrift
We've got a special double edition of this week's Torchwood review, due to the BBC's 'wise' decision to move the show to a Friday timeslot and show two episodes last week.
From Out Of The Rain
PJ Hammond has adopted a slightly disquieted tone when interviewed about his Torchwood work, displaying resentment at being pigeon-holed by the production team as the series’ source of supernatural and surreal horror. Unexpectedly, this appears to have improved his work, with the writer’s determination to escape his creative confinement resulting in a superb episode, with considerably more depth than its initial premise suggests.
From the “Next Time” trailer at the end of Something Borrowed, it’s clear exactly what should be expected from this episode: a creepy ghost story, complete with sinister clowns and a haunted cinema. Ten minutes in, little that’s happened contradicts this impression. A suitably sinister figure has been introduced, as has a stock family whose lives can be turned upside down by the occult. Torchwood has blundered into events, with a social outing bringing the team into contact with the threat. The story seems set up to use the same plot device as many J-horror films, taking an innocuous daily object, and giving it a means of stealing the souls of those exposed to it. The enchanted projector and film reel with a life of its own creates this impression, but what seals the viewers’ expectation is the moment when Jack appears in the travelling show footage. At this point, the path of the story appears to be set: the film will suck in those who watch it and leave them trapped, beginning with Jack. However, this element is quickly exposed as a red herring, with Jack explaining that he was actually filmed participating in the act shown. Hammond then launches the story off in an unexpected direction, showing a horror from a bygone age trying to survive in a changed world, blissfully unaware that the “cutting edge” technology it exploits is already outdated.
Rather than presenting a horrific but uncomplicated opponent, the writer frequently makes the audience sympathetic to the enemy that Torchwood faces. On the silver screen, Ghost Maker is a terrifying figure, and it’s easy to assume that this beckoning spectre will be an implacable force to rival Bilis and Adam in Torchwood’s rogues’ gallery. In the flesh, however, he is simply too bizarre a creature to instil fear- for once, the dismissive reaction of a monster’s first victim seems appropriate. He’s obviously the driving force behind the Night Travellers, but appears strangely directionless after his initial breakout from the Electro- it takes his companion to suggest the fairly obvious step of resurrecting the rest of their troupe. The writer takes a very bold approach, scripting much of the story as a sequel to the pre-credits sequence. In his element, Ghost Maker is a metaphor for the power of entertainment, with a breathtaking spectacle winning over the hearts (and souls) of his audience. Hammond provides no origin story for the Night Travellers, but the episode does not demand one- the concept is clear, and needs no elaboration. In the present day, external stimuli to the imagination are more readily accessible, so while the monster’s power remains, the ethos that drove it is absent, leaving Ghost Maker reduced to a mere serial killer. His impotence is emphasised in his only direct confrontation with a member of the team, where Owen proves completely immune to his assault. Even more so than the ringmaster, Pearl comes across as being strangely pitiful. In her native time, her act consisted of simply appearing slightly damp. In the present day, she largely remains in the background, but even when she does take centre stage, the results add to this impression of inadequacy. Rising up from the bathtub in Jonathan’s editing suite isn’t intended to scare her unfortunate audience- it’s simply part of her act, and she is visibly surprised to be greeted by screams rather than applause. The moment when she is found crouching in the remains of an abandoned and forgotten swimming pool underlines that the Night Travellers’ time is long gone.
Considerably weaker are the writing and performances relating to the other guest characters, but despite initial impressions, it is only the youngest member of the Penn family who plays any real part in the story. Hammond’s treatment of the regular characters is sound, and confirmation that Ianto spent his youth in Cardiff before moving to London makes his local knowledge more credible. Also laudable is the duration of the episode. After Last of the Time Lords and Voyage of the Damned demanded extended running times to do justice to the stories in question, its encouraging to see a willingness to close the story five minutes short of the normal Torchwood episode length, as padding would have diluted the material’s impact. Basset’s direction is subtle, but considerably aids the story. The jump-shocks are well executed, and we are given a glimpse of Owen’s bandaged hand to remind us of his undead state a few seconds before it plays a part in the plot. Such unqualified praise unfortunately cannot be given to the effects used in the episode. The CG used to realise Ghost Maker’s flask is extremely poor, and the situation has to be rescued by the high quality make-up on his dehydrated victims. Despite the production team’s claims to the contrary in the accompanying documentary, the Night Traveller’s circus appears extremely sparse, and the low production values here would have hampered the storytelling if any more time were to be spent at the showground. The return to Torchwood’s trademark “Cardiff in the rain” night-scenes suffer no such deficiencies, being universally well-executed.
Small Worlds explored a number of threats to childhood, including paedophilia and abusive parents. However, these elements felt more like an adult’s fears than a child’s, and never really developed into a coherent story. Despite its unexpected turns From Out Of The Rain never feels inconsistent, with Hammond giving the viewer just enough background information to allow the story to unfold steadily. By intimately tying a visual style to his tale, Hammond adds cohesion and frees himself to add unexpected poignancy to the story.
The first Torchwood bottle episode was one of the most influential episodes of the initial run, although not in the way its creators intended. Universally regarded as the nadir of Series One, a drastic change in policy ensued to prevent a repeat of the Random Shoes fiasco. Instead of being afterthoughts, these instalments of Doctor Who Series Three and the Sarah Jane Adventures had high profile writers attached. In the case of Torchwood Series Two, however, the tinkering with the regular characters means that the story is a job best left to the lead writer.
Adrift is superficially similar to its predecessor, as Gwen undertakes an investigation virtually single handedly, exploring the human interest angle to a minor sci-fi incident in the face of opposition from her boss. However, Chibnall makes a number of adjustments to overcome the problems which befell Random Shoes. Although John Barrowman is not given significantly more material than in last year’s bottle episode, Jack is much more integral to the plot. The human interest angle to this story is much stronger than in the original bottle episode, with Nikki’s desire to recover her son a much more pressing matter than Eugene’s academic curiosity about the manner of his death. Keen to make the episode an integral part of the series overall story, the writer decides to use this script to restore some of the edginess to Rhys’s view of Torchwood. Given the extent of Rhys’s disenchantment with his wife’s employer, Chibnall chooses to doubly link the organisation with the episode’s plot, making it both the investigator of the mystery and its solution. This, however, creates its own difficulties.
The notion of Torchwood secretly looking after those harmed by the rift is a perfectly plausible one, but the implementation somehow fails to sit easily with the rest of the show. The first problem is simply with the realisation of the care home. The concrete outbuildings are perfectly acceptable- this is clearly a former military or secret service facility that Jack has had converted to its present use. However, the interior is styled as a dungeon, with only token additions made to convey that people live here. It feels rather fanish, not to say unreasonable, to complain that we’ve seen nothing of this installation to date- such an objection implies that every aspect of a concept should be demonstrated fully in its first outing. However, there are two possibilities for the Flat Holm hospice, neither of which do much credit to the series. The first is that it will become a permanent addition to the series’ setup, in which case Chibnall and Davies really should have taken some steps to foreshadow its inclusion, such as having Jack mysteriously absent from the Hub on occasion or Ianto processing unusual payments. Presenting plot elements such as Lisa’s presence in the Hub’s lower levels or the ability of the water tower equipment’s ability to open the rift as fait accompli was one of the worse habits of the first series of the show, and severely damaged its credibility. The second, and more likely, option is that Flat Holm is a throwaway inclusion, which will not be referred to again. This, however, belittles the discoveries which have made such an impression on Gwen, and makes the episode feel rather inconsequential.
It says a lot about the lack of material given to Tom Price that his character is still universally referred to as “PC Andy”, despite having been a feature of the show since it started. The fact that Andy is the only real point of contact between the authorities and Torchwood has been a sore point in the show, and it was hoped that Series Two would address this issue. Rather than correct this problem, Chibnall takes the opportunity to explain the present situation, showing that Andy remains in contact with Gwen due to his unrequited crush on her. It’s a good solution to the issue, although the viewer is left in two minds as the whether the reason for reason for Andy’s absence from Gwen’s wedding was really the character’s unresolved feelings or the difficulties that would result from fitting him into the anarchy which unfolded. In many ways the most pressing character issue addressed by the story is that of Gwen’s lost naivety when it comes to the extraordinary. It was hardly credible that Cooper would maintain her initial passionate attachment to the everyday, and Nikki’s plight succeeds in both highlighting the changes that have been made to her character and providing a compelling explanation for why she strives so hard to avoid becoming completely hardened to the world she works in. The story also tentatively explores the issue of why Torchwood remains secret, and it’s a tribute to the quality of Chibnall’s writing that Nikki’s change in attitude, from crusading truth seeker to disowning her knowledge, does not feel at all contrived.
The perfect macrocosm for the story is the changes in Gwen and Rhys’s relationship. When the story starts, having not seen the couple since their wedding, the viewer assumes that all is well and that Gwen is managing to balance both halves of her life. As the story progresses, in becomes clear that this is not the case, and that Torchwood is having a detrimental impact on their marriage. However, events cause Gwen to reassess her views, and the two are reconciled. It’s all well written and performed, but merely restores the status quo which was present at the outset of the episode.